Jewish World Review August 13, 2004/ 26 Menachem-Av, 5764

Greg Crosby

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Art — Shoved Down Your Throat | Let's say that you have a picture window in your home that happens to face out to the street. From that window you can see a variety of trees, bushes and a ridge of rolling hills in the distance. You can also see some of your surrounding neighbors' homes from this window, including a large side wall of the house next door. How would you like if I moved into that house next door to you and painted a huge mural on the wall which faces your window? Would you unconditionally accept it as "art," embrace it as a wonderful thing and feel honored that I chose to "share" this art with you, or would you have preferred me asking if you minded the painting before going ahead with it?

Soon, this will be happening for real to me and my neighbors. An enormous outdoor mural will be painted in our neighborhood, to be completed in 2006. My neighbors and I will be honored to gaze daily at this "work of art" without having been consulted first or having a single thing to say about it. It all started 30 years ago.

In 1974, a 22-by 30-foot mural depicting an old woman holding a multicolored afghan was painted on a wall of the Prince Hotel in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. For years the mural was seen by everybody driving north on the Hollywood Freeway - you couldn't miss it. The thing became known as "Old Woman of the Freeway."

As time went on, a parking garage was built next to the hotel which obscured part of the bottom half of the mural. Later, in 1986, the mural was painted over without the artist's permission so he sued the owners of the hotel and others and, in 1992, he was awarded a settlement that included $125,000 to restore the "art work." But in the year 2000, by the time about a third of the thing was restored, taggers marked it up with graffiti. The artist, Kent Twitchell, doubts that any of the original can be saved. But have no fear, the Old Woman will rise again, this time in a new place, thanks to the Valley Institute of Visual Art gallery.

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The gallery, which was founded by five San Fernando Valley-based artists groups, originally opened in a Northridge strip mall in 1999 and has been looking for a better location ever since. It found its ideal location three years later in a quiet residential neighborhood in Sherman Oaks, on Moorpark Street near the corner of Fulton. A short walk from my house - how lucky for me.

Twitchell, who interestingly lives in Northern California, said he found the gallery in April after he gave a talk on creativity to members of Women Painters West, one of the five artists groups who opened the gallery. Twitchell was invited by Teri Garcia and other board members to visit the gallery and was asked if he would consider having a retrospective of his work there. Twitchell liked the gallery, especially its big, blank side wall that faces Fulton Avenue. In the words of board member Susan Kuss, "He took one look at it and said, 'I want to put the Freeway Lady there.' " Gee, I wonder why he doesn't want it in Northern California; say on a corner near HIS house?

The wall of the building will be able to accommodate a MUCH LARGER version of the old lady - the original was 22 by 30, the new one will be 26 feet high and 90 feet wide. "I'm going to consider the notion of raising her head above the height of the wall," Twitchell said. "It gives it much more of a 3-D look." He also wants to unfurl the old lady's afghan to extend above the flat roof of the building. It just gets better and better.

The gallery will pay $65,000 for what I'm certain will soon be called, "The Old Woman of Sherman Oaks," and will attempt to raise an additional $100,000 through donations and fundraising events. They expect the painting to be finished by spring of 2006.

This is just what our neighborhood really needs - an enormous painting of an old woman extending into the sky, looking down on the sorry saps who happen to live here and are now forced to be exposed to Kent Twitchell's "art work" whether we want to or not. I guess that's what you call "freedom of artwork."

I have never liked the whole idea of murals on outdoor buildings or public walls. It presupposes that EVERYONE LOVES THIS ART, or worse, EVERYONE SHOULD LOVE THIS ART. As far as I'm concerned, art belongs in a museum or in a gallery or in one's home. Art, like so many other things, is subjective; what I like in art may not be what you like. I don't force my art on you, please don't force your art on me.

If I walk into an art museum and happen to see a painting that I don't care for, I can walk away from it. You can't walk away from a 26 foot by 90 foot painting on the wall of an outdoor building that's literally on the corner where you live. It's kinda hard to ignore.

The Soviets used to love to erect enormous paintings of their political leaders in the public squares and on other buildings and walls throughout the country. China still does this, so do many fascist Arab countries in the Middle East. Hard to ignore a 90 foot painted icon of your fearless leader. Maybe that's what this mural is really all about - the new icon for the San Fernando Valley. As baby boomer feminists get older they will need a new icon to represent themselves. What better than the Old Woman of Sherman Oaks? A hard, dried up, humorless old broad.

I know the artist doesn't live anywhere within hundreds of miles of this thing. I just wonder how many members of Women Painters West actually live within walking distance to where the Old Woman will be glaring down at us.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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